Title: The Colour of Music
Author: Lisa Tiffen
Illustrator: Matt Ottley
Publisher: MidnightSun Publishing
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Themes: The power and beauty of music, synaesthesia
Synopsis: “Molly can see the music. Colours flash brilliantly as she listens.
The music takes her on a journey into a place filled with colour,
revealing connections between music, emotions, and the world we live in.
The Colour of Music mixes art, music and the written word in a truly synaesthetic experience.”
‘The Colour of Music’ by Lisa Tiffen and illustrated by Matt Ottley is an exquisite picture book. Reading this book is a powerful experience, one that is utterly beautiful and profoundly moving.
In this story, the reader is taken on an incredible adventure with Molly, via a piece of music, through rumbling waves; a serene, sunlit, crystal clear pond (the perspective in this illustration is incredible); to a meandering lava river and into several more mesmerising landscapes. Molly listens to a piece of music, in what appears to be an almost reverent, yet relaxed fashion, as she is in a quiet space with no distractions, she gives the music the attention it deserves. As the music starts playing, Molly sees various abstract visions full of colour. These change with each different section of the music. After each abstract illustration is a double page spread, featuring a breathtaking landscape scene, showing Molly in various emotional states inspired by the sounds captured in the lyrical text that relate to the emotions she feels. Molly has synaesthesia, which at the end of the story explains that this is “a merging of the senses. People with synaesthesia may see colours when they hear, smell or taste something. Sometimes they even see letters, words and numbers as colours”.
This story resonates very much with our family as we all enjoy the beauty of music and appreciate its transformative power. For example, whenever someone in our family needs a pick-me-up, you will hear the call for a “disco kitchen” and the ever changing play list containing our happy songs is played. This auditory prompt signals everyone to gather in the kitchen and “dance it out”. As we get lost in the music, laughter ensues and moods are lifted. In addition to this, we were fascinated to gain an insight into synaesthesia and learn about this through Molly as well as Lisa Tiffen and Matt Ottley’s experiences that they describe at the end of the story. My younger daughter has dyslexia and dyscalculia. She personally felt a connection with Molly who responds to music in a visual way because when she hears people reading stories, she builds up pictures in her mind to make sense of the storyline. This book is a powerful gateway to discussions about conditions that cause people to experience learning and everyday activities in rich and unique ways, building empathy for these differences and seeing this as a gift.
This sublime picture book is such a powerful resource to share with children (in fact it is for everyone) to explore elements of visual literacy. It also gifts the reader greater knowledge about synaesthesia, music and the composition of a piece. It inspires readers to appreciate how music can be such a beautiful multisensory, cathartic experience.
Interview with Matt Ottley, author, artist and musician
I was so taken with this book that shortly after reading it, I reached out to Matt Ottley via email, to see if he would be willing to share information about his illustrations that he created to accompany the text. He very generously obliged and I am honoured to be able to share his responses below. Matt, thank you so much for joining us!
Note for question 1: In my initial email to Matt asking about the possibility of interviewing him, I asked about the inspiration for including the crocodile in one of the illustrations and the symbolism behind it, this is what Matt is referring to in his response to Question 1.
- Please tell us about The Colour of Music.
Perhaps this is a good moment to respond to the question you asked in your first email about the crocodile. That painting was actually a large oil painting I did many years ago for a friend who loves animals, particularly reptiles. I decided to use it in The Colour of Music as it’s perfect for the theme of that particular spread. I imported a photograph of the painting into a painting program I use with a graphics tablet (please see my answer to question 9 for more on my methods of working) and added the girl digitally. The sludgy mud fitted perfectly with the words on the previous spread, but also the crocodile really worked for me thematically. We have just been through darkness and heaviness at this point in the book. The crocodile, for me, represents the dangerous, dark side of humanity, but by facing this dark side, by embracing it through music, by making it a friend it can lead us through the sludgy mud. I hope that makes sense!
- As an illustrator, composer and author, what does The Colour of Music mean to you in terms of connecting music to colour and pictures?
This book was an opportunity to express, in a picture book format, my own personal experience of synaesthesia. The interesting thing is that I didn’t actually listen to any particular pieces of music to make the images, the reason for this should become clear in my answer to question no. 4. On the subject of me as a composer, I have often used music I’ve created for giving me the shapes and colours that make up a visual composition. Obviously, these shapes and colours are always going to be abstract as that is the nature of the synaesthesia I experience, but I then take those compositions and create recognizable landscapes or other kinds of settings from them. Sometimes I have reverse engineered that process, creating abstract paintings made from the kinds of colours and patterns I experience with synaesthesia, then creating music from them.
- When you read the text, did you have a clear vision for the character of Molly? Is she inspired by someone in your life?
Often when I’m drawing a character, how they should look comes to me intuitively. Sometimes the shapes of their face come directly from music (i.e, the circles and triangles and other geometric shapes of their face come from music I have written about them). In Molly’s case, I’m really not sure as I didn’t use music to derive her look, she just seemed to be the right person for this book. But, interestingly, when I read your question the first person who came to mind was a good friend of mine when I was about 6 years old. Her name was Mari and she lived in the highlands of PNG, right next door to my family. Perhaps my subconscious was delivering me Mari!
- Molly goes on a colourful adventure while immersing herself in the music piece. Her body language, positioning on each page, her surroundings (often natural landscapes) and most importantly the colours speak to her and are a response to what she feels while listening to the music. What influenced your decisions for the illustrations to depict all these visual literacy elements, as well as the colour palette that make it impossible not to engage so intensely and deeply with the story?
Lisa originally had colours named in the text, but we decided that the pictures could do that, and the words could be free to enhance the emotional aspect and mood of each spread. Synaesthesia is a strange thing in that sometimes the colours and shapes that those who have the condition see are not what you might think they would be. Sometimes angry, loud music doesn’t create red, sharp images, it can, for example, elicit deep blue or gold, with smooth shapes. But I decided that it would be best to use colours that most people could culturally relate to, so where the words refer to angry, sharp and loud, I used some colours I would naturally see when listening to such music, but also shapes and colours that most people would culturally relate to as loud and angry.
- The text describes the different sections of the piece of music with an accompanying illustration. Often this is followed by a double page spread, free of text and an evocative illustration. Was this always part of the plan? Can you tell us more about these double page spreads?
Because the text pages contain mostly abstract imagery, I decided to create a landscape that emotionally relates to the sound that the words on each previous spread are eliciting. This was, loosely, always the plan. Music can so often help us make sense, even if it’s a wordless, feeling-based sense of the world. For example, when the words read, weeping broken chords wail their hollow strains, echoing like a lonely drop of water, the icy, frozen and almost recognizable landscape of that particular spread (being perhaps and Arctic landscape) is followed by a very dark image. When I listen to deeply mournful music and think about places where people persecute each other, where war destroys the lives of children, I don’t – because of the music – feel anger, but a deep sense of love and compassion for my fellow human beings, and I ask the question, how did we get here when all we really want to do is love each other? That’s the power of music to help me feel empathy and compassion. We see Molly on a dark plain looking very lonely and vulnerable, before a forest of missiles sticking out of the earth. I may not have any answers as to why the world is like it is, but at least music can help me feel connected and reminds of the great joy and beauty we are all capable of. Darkness in music is like the darkness of shadows – it proves the existence of light.
- Is there a musical score to accompany this book? If so, are you able to share any information about this?
There is indeed a musical score to the book. I have been mentoring Lisa in both writing picture books, and in music composition for the past few years. She is currently working on a piece of music all about this book. It’s scored for string quintet (2 violins, viola, ‘cello and bass) and piano. We’re hoping she will have it completed later this year. We’re very excited about it.
- What is the musical score on the endpapers?
It’s a little bit of Lisa’s first sketches for the piece she is working on for the book.
- What are your hopes for this book?
Gosh, that’s actually a hard question to answer because this book was for me such an intuitive and personal book to work on. I guess one of the wonderful things this book might do (at least I hope it does) is cause readers to reflect on music and the nature of the images and thoughts it can conure in one’s head. So much music now is what I call wall paper. It’s hard to go anywhere in modern cities and not hear the thump thump of background music, music that people don’t even notice, it’s just there, ubiquitously part of the ether. I would love people to think about creating silence in their lives so that the true magic, the mystery, the sheer loveliness of music can once again be discovered.
- Could you give us an insight into the place where you create your illustrations?
I have two spaces for creating illustrations. One is a studio a short walk from our house. It’s a beautiful little building about 4 by 6 metres with a ceiling height of about 4 metres and is perched on the side of a hill overlooking rainforest. That’s where I do oil paintings or drawings on paper or experiment with other kinds of media. I also have a studio in the house, which is where my Cintiq graphics tablet is set up with my computer. That’s where I do digital painting. I have a 26 inch (so that’s about 67 cm) screen that I draw on. I often mix the two forms of painting, so will begin a work on screen, then print it out on cotton rag paper (and it can be quite large – A2 or even bigger) and then paint in oils or acrylics over that, or begin a work on paper or canvas, photograph it at very high resolution, then work on the image on my Cintiq.
- Are you able to share any information about any upcoming projects you are working on?
I have just completed the work for a very large picture book for adults and young adults. It is called The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, and will be released by Dirt Lane Press this October. It’s a 128-page book with an accompanying CD and download link for a musical score I wrote for the book. The narrative, which I wrote, is a metaphorical journey into a fantastical land that represents a young man’s journey into a psychotic illness. It is certainly the largest and most ambitious project of my career. I was very lucky to have received private funding to record the music (which is for a 76-piece orchestra and a 40-voice choir) with one of Europe’s leading symphony orchestras and choirs, which, thankfully, happened just before Covid hit the planet. This whole project has taken 5 years to complete. There are 74 large paintings in total. As you can imagine, I’m now exhausted!
- Is there anything else you would like readers to know about The Colour of Music?
I can’t think of anything other than that The Colour of Music was originally to be released at roughly the same time Lisa was to release the music she is writing, but I feel it is almost fortuitous that that hasn’t yet happened as the book does something that is very clever, but which neither of us had realised it would do – it gives readers a visual and word-based sense of music, but without any actual music being present. What’s wonderful about this is that readers can then recall, or actually listen to, any kind of music they wish. It creates music without music being present. I guess it reflects that silence I was referring to earlier. I hope readers are inspired to rediscover the profound beauty of music through reading this book in a space of silence.